Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Olympic Legacies and Participation in Sport

It's in the news again, the Olympic legacy. Questions about falling participation in sport and what to do about it are once again on the table and no one seems to have an answer. Well it might be simplistic but maybe the expectation that simply having a major sporting event in the capital city would somehow inspire the generations to get up and have a go was somewhat presumptuous. Given that we have a lot of televised sport available and that hasn't inspired a generation, then two weeks of varied athletics was unlucky to reshape our participation overnight, or even over a few years.

I think there are some fundamental things wrong both in the way we engage people in sport and the access to sport that is available. Take tennis. Tennis clubs are not alone in being fairly inaccessible places. Not because they are geographically difficult to find, but because you have to cross the threshold of the unknown. And let's face it, they can be snobby too. Golf clubs are the same.

Second, most sports are technically demanding. Kicking, throwing or hitting a ball isn't difficult, but doing it consistently is hard. When you do a tennis coaching course, one of the things they get you to do is to try hitting with your non-dominant hand. Give it a try. Whether it's a racket sport or a bat and ball sport, you will suddenly discover what it's like to be a complete beginner. If you're blessed with good hand eye coordination you might just manage to get some sort of contact, but it's hard. It's not exactly the same as it would be as a true beginner, but it gives you a good indication.

So sport is hard, physically, mentally and emotionally. I was watching an under 10's tennis tournament the other day. Lots of tears and tantrums on show. These kids are still in the very early days of learning to play, but somehow the one thing they seem to have learned really well is how to put themselves under enormous pressure to win and be the best all the time. So they have a bad day or they lose a match. Someone needs to help them understand it's not the end of the world and that winning isn't the only measure of success. It is tough. I've got a match today and I know how hard I will be on myself and I'm an adult!

I think we need to find a way of helping people fall in love with sport before we get them participating and maybe even competing. Once we get people loving the idea of taking of part then we can get them moving. I don't run much at all these days, not the long distance stuff. Actually it was never very long, 5 or 6 miles at the absolute maximum. My knees tend to complain after a couple of miles now and the last time I did a 5k (I've gone metric in the last few years) was about 6 months ago just before I got a calf injury. But I still love running. If I could run without the knee pain, then I probably would. How fast would I run? Who cares. How far would I run? It doesn't matter. It would just be for the love of running. I try to carry that into my tennis, but I'm still a bit of a competitor and it's hard not to be overly critical of one's performance in a sport that is rather more technically demanding than plonking one foot in front of the other for 30 minutes or so. Sorry to anyone who is offended by that definition of running, I do know about things like cadence, gait cycles, knee lift etc.

So it seems to me that there are two basic priorities that we need to find a way of addressing if we're going to increase active participation in sport. Firstly we need to generate a love of taking part, of doing something active. Not sure how you do that, but without it I don't think you will get long term involvement. Second we have to improve access. How can people participate if there are no facilities open to them? But along with facilities there needs to be better access to coaching. We're not talking high performance, just people who can help you get started. They need to be trained because coaching is actually a skill. Just because you can play it doesn't mean you can coach.

What might happen if local councils and local sports clubs got together to look at how they could deliver sport in the community. Councils have the land and the space, clubs have the players and volunteers that might be able to make it happen. Perhaps we need to encourage those who are already active to learn some of the coaching skills that can then be put to use outside the clubs and in the public spaces.

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